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No, honestly, not another political posting. Well, not really. This is yer actual literature. Although to be honest the references to the current political situation in America are obvious and surely intentional.

I’ve not previously read anything by Philip Roth, though it would have been difficult to miss the trajectory of his career over the last 30 years or so. He starts out as controversial, becomes for a while feted, his critical reputation then nosedives, and finally starts to climb again. The Plot Against America (Cape, 2004) comes when he is once more at the peak of literary respectability, and, true to form, it has been garlanded with praise from all the big critical guns. Never having read anything by Roth before, I’m not sure if he has dabbled with genre before, but this new book is an an outright and unapologetic venture into alternate history, which is one of the things that has got the critics so excited. Wow, who’d have thought of doing that?

The thing you realise the moment you start reading this book is that Roth knows nothing about how alternate history works – and presumably neither do any of the critics who have so lauded the book. It is, by turns, brilliant and dreadful. The penultimate chapter is probably the most amateurish thing I’ve come across in any work of alternate history; but the chapter that precedes that is probably one of the finest.

Roth starts with the premise that Charles Lindbergh, American hero and outspoken anti-Semite, wins the Republican nomination in the 1940 presidential race, then goes on to defeat Roosevelt for the White House. (He does this, noticeably, by appearing brave and resolute, and spouting simplistic nonsense. It is, I am sorry to say, one of the more believable aspects of this book: how easily the American public falls for this rubbish.) In power, Lindbergh keeps America out of the war, signs treaties with Japan and Germany, and slowly initiates a series of policies attacking the Jews. Thus the broad picture, and it is this aspect of the novel which is the worst. Roth seems to have no idea at all how to fill in this background other than by the most blatant, lumpen infodumps. The early chapters become almost unreadable in places, like a crass popular history written by someone with no affinity for the subject.

But within this broad picture he tells the story of one Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey, the Roths. The narrator is nine-year-old Philip, so we get these terrible events filtered through the childish incomprehension of someone at the receiving end of it all. Roth plunders his own family to provide a focus for exploring exactly how people are affected by great political events, and it works extraordinarily well. The subtle way in which tensions are exacerbated, differences blown up and then reconciled, strengths and weaknesses tested, makes the bulk of this novel probably the most affecting and humane alternate history you are likely to encounter. There is no melodrama, no big events, but the remorseless portrait of how ordinary lives are turned upside down by such political changes is absolutely masterful.

When Roth takes his eye of his family, however, it all falls apart. In the penultimate chapter he contrives a happy ending that is ludicrously unbelievable, goes directly against the tenor of the political events so far, and is described so clumsily that its hard to take it seriously. And this big picture really isn’t necessary, because we could have seen it all through the family. If he had trusted his alternate history more, kept it all more tightly within focus, a very good novel might have been great.

First published at Livejournal, 8 November 2004.

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